J.K. Rowling’s Spellbinding Harvard Commencement Speech Lives On

UPDATED: October 7, 2015
PUBLISHED: April 14, 2015

When you’ve written thousands upon thousands of pages comprising a literary phenomenon and sold over 450 million books worldwide, scribbling a few words to say at a commencement address shouldn’t be difficult, right? Not necessarily.

After she was invited to speak to the 2008 graduating class of Harvard University, author J.K. Rowling experienced weeks of “fear and nausea.” Despite her initial anxiety, the woman who created the magical world of Harry Potter quickly enchanted the audience by sharing the twin secrets to her success: the benefits of failure and the value of imagination.

Rowling explained how an early failed marriage and hitting financial rock-bottom as a single mother gave her the solid foundation she needed to rebuild her life. Failure also taught her lessons she “could have learned no other way,” Rowling told the tassled masses. “The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive…. Such knowledge is a true gift… and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”

While failure freed her to write, it was Rowling’s pre-Potter experience in the research department of Amnesty International that showed her the critical importance of imagination in its broadest sense. “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not…. It is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared,” she said. That understanding informed her writing and continues to motivate her.

She closed her 20-minute speech with a quote from the Roman philosopher Seneca: “As is a tale, so is a life: Not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”

Now the full text of Rowling’s speech is an illustrated book titled Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination (April; Little, Brown; $15) with 90 percent of the profits benefiting Lumos, a charity founded by Rowling that works to transform the lives of disadvantaged children. The remaining 10 percent will go to university-wide financial aid at Harvard.

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